Germany’s Angela Merkel is – cautiously – dipping her toe in Africa’s troubled waters. The Chancellor is planning to bolster her forces in Mali as well as providing logistical support to the French operation in the Central African Republic. Germany’s new defense minister Ursula von der Leyen is already in Africa and  has been meeting troops stationed in Senegal on the first leg of an Africa tour that will also take her to Mali.

Germany TanzaniaThis is not without difficulties. As Deutsche Welle, Germany’s radio broadcaster to the world puts it: “Within Germany the deployment of troops abroad is a controversial issue.”

“In addition to supporting the EU anti-pirate mission off the Horn of Africa, Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, also contribute military observers and liaison officers in Sudan, Congo and the Western Sahara. In Mali, the Bundeswehr is participating in the training of Malian security forces.German Foreign Minister Steinmeier sees Germany assuming more responsibilities internationally. Now the German government wants to bolster the troop strength of the EU training mission in Mali. Instead of the previous maximum of 180 soldiers, up to 250 German soldiers can be dispatched to Mali in the future.”

A colonial echo

RecruitmentNo European presence on African soil – particularly a military presence – can escape echoes of the past. Germany is no exception.

It is easily forgotten that Germany held substantial areas of Africa prior to World War One, when it was stripped of its colonies.

These included:

  • South-West Africa (now Namibia)
  • Cameroon
  • Togo
  • Tanzania
  • Rwanda
  • Burundi

In addition, Germany held areas of Kenya and Mozambique.

German SWA hanging 312 negroesThese were not uncontroversial. Indeed, Germany’s treatment of the Herero in South-West Africa shocked the world. They were driven into the desert to die and a people that numbered 80,000 before the conflict was reduced to just 15,000. The word genocide is not out of place.

This was the proclamation of the German commander, General Lothar von Trotha:

I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Hereros. The Hereros are German subjects no longer. They have killed, stolen, cut off the ears and other parts of the body of wounded soldiers, and now are too cowardly to want to fight any longer. I announce to the people that whoever hands me one of the chiefs shall receive 1,000 marks, and 5,000 marks for Samuel Maherero. The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the ‘long tube’ (cannon). Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.


Nazi colonial ambition

After the First World War Adolph Hitler campaigned for the return of the African colonies. In June 1935 Hitler called for the restoration of the former German colonies and established an Imperial Colonial League (Reichskolonialbund) which over the next few years waged an extremely aggressive propaganda campaign for colonial restoration.

The German aims were crushed when Allied forces finally drove the Afrika Korps out of the continent in May 1943.

None of this is to suggest that the German aims in Africa today bear any resemblance to this notorious past. But just as British treatment of the Mau Mau colours London’s relations with Nairobi today, so Berlin’s military relations with Africa are tainted by its history.